Fandom: democracy or tyranny?

Hollywood's decisions have become increasingly determined by internet fandoms

The digital age has revolutionised the way we interact with and talk about our favourite films and TV shows, with the most successful of them becoming cultural phenomenons faster and more widely than ever before. Thanks to fan interaction online, connecting with people who share your interests has never been easier or more socially acceptable, and the widespread adoption of the idea of “fandom” has fundamentally changed the fabric of pop-cultural discourse.

People debate plot lines and character development on Reddit, post GIFs on Tumblr, and search through Pinterest for memes. YouTube enables fans to share their thoughts on the latest blockbuster or mourn the death of a beloved character through “tribute videos”, sometimes cheesy (but often moving) compilations of clips against a mournful soundtrack. And since 1998, the most devoted of fans have spawned thousands of fanfics across a range of fandoms. But fandom today is not solely reliant on the internet to thrive, as fans turn out in their thousands every year to celebrate their favourites at Comic-Cons all over the world – and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a significant fandom that doesn’t have a corresponding society here in our university.

No longer do people simply turn up to a cinema and enjoy a movie. Now, it has become impossible to escape the maelstrom of fan theories, rumours, and news articles that comprise the constantly regenerating pop-culture news machine. This month’s rumour that Henry Cavill may be about to hang up his Superman cape sent the DC fandom into overdrive, despite the lack of substantive proof to underpin the wild speculation. Right on cue, numerous articles appeared listing their ‘top 5’ candidates to take up the popular role.

The fandom-driven discourse around film and TV in our culture can seem overwhelming for the casual cinema goer, but the importance of fandom to the film industry cannot be overstated. If harnessed properly, fandom and niche-interest groups can be hugely lucrative, driving film studios to keep on producing further instalments for long-running franchises. The revenue drawn from franchise giants like Harry Potter is an indicator of the commercial profit in fandom. It now has a staggering worth of $25 billion – a sum that it couldn’t have attained without its strong legion of fans. Studios are often remarkably brazen in their efforts to tap into niche-interest groups in order to boost their profits; many in the industry raised their eyebrows at Disney when, in 2016, they targeted much of their advertising for Zootopia towards furries.

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But film and TV fandoms can have a darker side, especially those focused on a particular actor. In their eagerness, fans can fail to respect the right of a star to a private life. Giving fandoms more power has made them much more vocal in their opinions, as everybody now has the forum to make their opinions heard. Fans can also be strangely unforgiving in their appraisal of a performance; in the most extreme cases, actors have been forced to leave social media to escape the hate, with Kelly Marie Tran being a particularly high-profile Twitter-abstainer after the backlash in the Star Wars fandom against The Last Jedi.

The wider effects of a fandom-driven film industry are plain to see in a cinematic landscape saturated with franchises, sequels and reboots that keep series running over many years. Marvel are producing three movies a year, the Jurassic Park series has been rebooted with two new movies in the last couple of years, while the Fantastic Beasts franchise and The Cursed Child ensures that the Harry Potter universe continues to generate revenue even as the story of our favourite boy wizard has reached its clear conclusion. In 2005, it seemed that the story of the Skywalker family had also been brought to a close, but arguably, in recent years the Star Wars franchise has undergone the largest revival. With two new trilogy’s in the works, a number of spinoff movies and numerous TV series, not to mention the new lines of merchandise, the galaxy far far away has travelled much further than George Lucas’ original vision. As a Star Wars fan myself this new content was welcome news, but not so for others. The disappointing box office return from Solo has prompted Disney to scale back their production of Star Wars films in the future.

The fandom drive has lead to criticism that Hollywood is no longer producing enough original content in the industry’s new focus on satisfying the demands of fandoms. But surely with the amount of money that fandom pumps into the industry and the sense of community that fandoms often give to people, the rise of film and TV fandoms can only be a good thing…right?